The greatest challenge in writing about Metropolitan Riveters defender Nichelle Simon is knowing where to start. Do you begin with the fact she didn’t get her on-ice start until she was a 17-year-old? Do you instead go with the fact that she rose so quickly, was so head-and-shoulders better than those she played with and against, that she transferred from her public school in Atlanta to the veritable hockey factory that is Shattuck St. Mary’s mere months later? Or how about the fact that she started her own women’s team, she hasn’t played at a major competitive level since her final college campaign in 2004-05, she competed on American Ninja Warrior or she’s a cancer survivor who tried to put off chemotherapy treatments last summer in order to tryout for the NWHL?
Maybe we should start with that last one, because it’s why Simon, 36, will be the league’s oldest newcomer this season instead of a spry 35-year-old rookie.
When the NWHL burst onto the scene in 2015, Simon had heard about the fledgling league and was urged by some of those around her to give it a shot, test her mettle, see if she could transition from standout recreational player to professional athlete in the burgeoning women’s circuit. In the years since her time at NCAA Div. III Neumann University ended, she had continued to grow her game. She was and had been practicing with a boys AAA team in Huntsville, Ala., since 2007, she continued skating in recreational men’s leagues and she played on weekends. By her estimation, she was a better player then – and she’s a better player now – than she had never been. The issue, however, was that Simon was on a different journey at the time.
In August 2015, she had committed herself and her life to training for American Ninja Warrior. Hockey was on the back burner, and that’s where it remained for the next two years while Simon lived in the gym, earned her spot on the ninth season of the program and competed with and against some of the best athletes in the world. But at the culmination of her pursuit of one dream, and with time to take stock of what she wanted to tackle next, Simon’s focus shifted.
During the 2017-18 NWHL campaign, she began flirting with the idea of playing in NWHL. And it was in the late stages of that season that she committed. In February 2018, Simon made plans to head to Nashville where she would train with Total Package Hockey – she’s the director of administrations for TPH – in preparation for an NWHL tryout.
“I was ready to go do that, had a hotel booked, was ready to move and everything,” Simon said. “I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 22nd of that year, two weeks before I was ready to go.”
And here’s the part where you come to understand something about Simon’s drive and determination: when faced with the cancer diagnosis, among her first questions was whether or not she could put off the surgery, stall the chemotherapy and continue the pursuit of her newfound NWHL dream. As Simon put it, she’s not one who does well when her plans are altered by outside forces. She didn’t want to let anything get in her way. But this? This she had to accept. Her doctors told her she could wait weeks, but not the months her training would require. She went under the knife. She went through four hard months of chemotherapy.
“And all that time, all I was thinking was, ‘Get through this so I can try out for the NWHL next year, because I’m only getting older every year. I’m healthy and I’m strong,’” she said. “And coming off of American Ninja Warrior, I was the strongest and healthiest I’ve ever been and I didn’t want to lose that.”
By the time she finished her treatment in July, however, it had taken its toll. And while it didn’t stop Simon from skating in Chicago’s “Puck Cancer” tournament four weeks after her final round of chemotherapy, which she called one of the most challenging weekends of hockey of her entire life, she felt the impact of what her body had gone through. When she got back into the gym, she was a shadow of what she had been only several months earlier. “I was weaker and tired so quickly, so I couldn’t go as long, couldn’t go as heavy, couldn’t go as hard,” Simon said. “I think it was January, probably, before I really started to feel good in the gym again and could really start pushing a little more.”
But over the next several months, with longtime boyfriend, Eric Smith, by her side, she worked tirelessly. She pushed her body to its limit. The gains were small but incremental. In June, she stepped on the ice for an open tryout in front of Metropolitan Riveters staff. The coaches were impressed, enough to give Simon another look. And that’s when Simon ramped up her workouts. For the next eight weeks, she trained “100 percent, full, all out, every day, like I had been for Ninja Warrior.” Her devotion was rewarded the next time she stepped in front of the coaches. On Sept. 13, her signing by the Riveters was made official when it was announced by the NWHL, and on Sept. 28, Simon stepped foot on the ice for the first time in her professional career.
“I was very overwhelmed,” she said. “I was trying to focus on the game but my mind kept coming back to, just, ‘My God, what am I doing here and how did I get here? This is amazing.’ I’m just in awe of everything and of myself and everything around me. I played that game with a smile on my face almost the entire time. My legs were burning, my lungs were burning and my everything hurt.”
Through it all, though, Simon said she was smiling and happy, thankful for what she’s been able to accomplish. And when she steps foot on the ice for Game No. 1, her big-league debut, she will do so as one of the league’s elder stateswomen despite the fact she is, by all measures, an NWHL rookie. She jokes about it, quips about feeling old – “I told (my teammates) the other day that I’ve been working at my job for 12 years…And one of them looked at me and said, ’12 years? How old are you?’” Simon laughed – but everything that has brought her here has given her a unique perspective on what it means to be accomplishing this dream.
“I’m older than most of them by 10 years or more, and I’ve lived a lot of things,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot of things, obviously, competed at high levels and different things. I sit there and I feel like I have a different outlook on life and on what I’m doing there. I feel very, very honored and lucky to be there.”